Sartre: A Life is a major new biography of one of France’s most famous intellectuals. It breaks new ground in several respects, most notably in shedding new light on Jean-Paul Sartre’s private life. The book’s revelations were made possible by the imaginative and thorough research conducted by the author, Annie Cohen-Solal. In addition to drawing upon Sartre’s correspondence, she has diligently interviewed an impressive range of people who knew Sartre at various stages in his life. Algerian-born but reared in France, Cohen-Solal was awarded a doctorate in French literature from the Sorbonne. She has previously published a biography of Paul Nizan, Sartre’s closest male friend prior to World War II.
Sartre’s relationship with his father has been one of the mysteries about his life. Sartre rarely mentioned his father, Jean-Baptiste, and once suggested that he never had a father. Since Sartre was only fifteen months old when Jean-Baptiste died, this view is understandable, but it obscures the similarities between them. These similarities were most evident in their appearance: Both were quite short, no more than five feet two inches tall, and the general physical resemblance was striking. More important, although they belonged to privileged families and became exceptional students at prestigious academic institutions, both men were temperamentally outsiders. After being graduated near the top of his class at the École Polytechnique, Jean-Baptiste could have become a member of France’s ruling elite, but instead he chose to join the navy. This decision involved not only a conscious rejection of the positions of power and influence available to him, but also a separation from his home and family for years at a time while he was at sea. Assigned to the French fleet involved in forcibly imposing French authority on the northern part of Indochina, he was appalled by French imperialism in practice, to the extent that he was passed over for promotions because of his continuing doubts about French policy. In thus repudiating his government’s policy toward that region, he set a precedent for his son, Jean-Paul, who became a leading critic of France’s efforts to retain Indochina by force in the years after World War II.
It was his mother, however, who exerted the strongest influence on Jean-Paul. Anne-Marie Schweitzer, a bright, well-educated member of a socially prominent family from Alsace, married Jean-Baptiste in 1904, a year before Jean-Paul was born. Albert Schweitzer’s cousin, she was descended from a long line of teachers, most of them militant republicans in a monarchist country, who, being liberal Protestants, were also a minority within France’s minority faith. Jean-Baptiste died the year after Jean-Paul’s birth. For the next ten years the young Sartre had Anne-Marie to himself; she was his principal playmate, an older sister as well as his mother.
This idyllic childhood ended abruptly in the year 1917 when Anne-Marie remarried. From being a spoiled child who had a near monopoly on his mother’s affections, Sartre now had to compete for her attention with a stranger, Joseph Mancy. Sartre never forgave him. His stepfather became a symbol of the hated bourgeois; years later, Sartre admitted that his stepfather “was always the person I wrote against.” Fatherless, and feeling rejected by his mother, Sartre considered himself virtually an orphan. He claimed that this lack of family ties gave him a sense of liberation, a radical freedom to shape himself as he wished without the normal family constraints.
After his mother remarried, the family moved to La Rochelle. Cohen-Solal suggests that this move was a traumatic experience in the young Sartre’s life second only to his mother’s remarriage. Sartre differed from the local boys because of his Parisian manners and his more elegant dress. His classmates considered him a pompous, pretentious creature and subjected him to ridicule and beatings. Years later, Sartre stated that at La Rochelle he had discovered something which marked the remainder of his life: “The most profound relationships between men are based on violence.” A misfit, Sartre dealt with the situation by becoming the class fibber; when his falsifications were exposed, he retreated to the solitary world of books.
Fortunately for Sartre, in 1920 the family returned to Paris, where he was enrolled successively in two of the best schools in France: the Lycée Henri IV and, from 1924 to 1929, the École Normale Supérieure. Sartre became an extrovert, noted for his quips and wisecracks. At the École Normale he acted in plays, sang in musicals, and, being an accomplished pianist, accompanied a musical revue performed by his classmates. He also excelled academically. Cohen-Solal suggests that his self-image during these years was that of a “Nietzschean aristocrat” who, while professing egalitarianism, was quite conscious of his intellectual superiority. Noticeably missing from his wide-ranging interests was anything connected with politics. Unlike his friends and classmates, Sartre ignored political debates, avoided street demonstrations, and did not become involved with any political parties, a pattern which starkly contrasts with his later reputation for political commitment.
Sartre had little enthusiasm for his École Normale courses with one exception: those on Henri Bergson’s philosophy. It was Bergson who first attracted Sartre to philosophy; it was also Bergson who influenced Sartre when he began to formulate his theories of creativity and becoming, and especially his doctrine of total freedom. His instructors at the École Normale viewed Sartre as a slightly disrespectful, even subversive, student, but one who had tremendous potential. After failing his final examinations in philosophy in 1928,...
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